Shepherding Change -Part 1

What to do when sheep act like cats

It’s an understatement to say that a church will face change when there is a turn-over of their senior pastor! Yet most church leadership teams underestimate the impact.

To use the word ‘change’ can easily keep pastoral transition at an unemotional and detached level, as if the church simply changed the color of the paint on the wall (though that has often been a very emotional experience in some churches!).

So yes, when a senior pastor leaves, change occurs. But it’s important to drill-down beyond the obvious and see how and why the change of senior pastor sends shock waves through the hearts of the flock. It is a painful loss for many, and that means to some degree people are grieving.

Insightful church leaders, who shepherd well, realize there is a significant difference in how people adjust or adapt to change when it’s imposed on them, versus when they choose it. When we want change and look forward to it, we relish it. But when we are surprised by it, or it wasn’t what we wanted, we often resist.

Response to Change

Kerry A. Bunker, in his work at the Center for Creative Leadership, explains why there is such a variety of responses to change[1].

Bunker’s research reveals that our response to change is based on two variables: our capacity for change, and our comfort with change. This has enormously helpful implications for shepherding a church through pastoral transition.

Shepherding through Transition

Comfort with change is a person’s ability to deal with loss and the accompanying emotional transition. It’s being able to accept a situation that isn’t going away…to let go of what was…to realize that an ending must occur to start looking forward to a new beginning.

Capacity for change is the ability to learn and grow amid transition. If a person’s capacity is low, they tend to withdraw, but if it’s high they stay engaged. Capacity for change can be measured by a willingness to take risks to adapt to a new environment.

Every person has the potential to move from a low to high level of both comfort with and capacity for change. And this is right where shepherding change can powerfully occur!

To encourage both comfort and capacity, those in your church will need a strong dose of both biblical hope and trust. They need confidence that life is not out of control or random. They need assurance that God is purposefully moving in all the events of their church. They need encouragement they haven’t been abandoned or forsaken, and that God is still walking with them. It’s learning to trust the heart of God! As Joseph told his brothers in Genesis 50:20 “…you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”

The interworking of these two dynamics of comfort with change and capacity for change creates some very predictable responses. Knowing what these responses look like, will give church leaders understanding in how to strategically shepherd their flock through pastoral transition. We’ll cover those responses in my next blog.

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[1] p.10 “Responses to Change: Helping People Manage Transition”, Kerry A. Bunker, Center for Creative Leadership, Copyright 2008, Greensboro, NC

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